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Archive for May, 2010

Green Papaya

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Green, Unripe Papaya Makes Spicy Salad

In Thailand, green papayas are probably eaten more often than ripe papayas.

On the island of Samui in the Gulf of Thailand is a lovely family-run beach resort. Idyllic seaside bungalows are surrounded by some of the most beautiful papaya trees I have ever seen.

Green Papaya

A green papaya

The first time I stayed there, I was so charmed by the unusual stature of these trees with their majestic, deeply cut foliage. Clinging to the trunk of each tree must be at least a dozen large, emerald green fruits, soon to ripen in the tropical heat. I remarked to the owner that he must never need to worry about having enough sweet, luscious papayas to satisfy the steady stream of tourists who come and stay at his resort.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Peeled Green Papaya

Peeled green papaya

He chuckled and replied, “I have never seen a single fruit ripen on any of my trees. The papayas I serve my guests I have to order from the mainland. Papayas on this island never have the chance to ripen!”

I knew exactly what he meant. Papayas are more often than not picked by locals while still green to be made into a spicy salad, a favorite food among Thai, as well as Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese people. I wouldn’t be surprised if  more papayas are consumed green and crisp in Southeast Asia than golden orange and soft. A tribute has even been made to this fruit in its unripened form in the film “Scent of Green Papaya,” with a prominent scene showing green papaya being chopped and made into salad.

Shredded Green Papaya

Shredded green papaya

Green papaya has a very mild, almost bland, taste, but it is the medium through which robust flavor ingredients take body and form. It picks up the hot, sour, sweet and salty flavors, giving them a unique crisp and chewy texture unlike that of any other vegetable. When made into salad, you wouldn’t know that it was mild and timid; you remember it only as bold and spicy.

Unripe papayas are readily available in various sizes and shapes during the summer at many Asian markets. Select one that is very firm with shiny green peel suggesting that it is as freshly picked as possible. Even green fruits will eventually ripen and turn soft if allowed to sit around for some time.

Green Papaya Salad Ingredients

Fixings for Green Papaya Salad

There are many ways to make green papaya salads, with varying degrees of hotness, sourness and sweetness. The hottest salads are probably made in northeastern Thailand and Laos where they are eaten with barbecued chicken and sticky rice as a staple food of the populace. There, the salads are made by bruising julienned green papaya with garlic and very hot bird peppers in a large clay mortar with a wooden pestle, then seasoning with lime juice, fish sauce and other flavorings.

Give the green papaya salad recipe a try.

See our website for more Thai recipes and more Thai ingredients.

Green Papaya Salad Set-up

Green Papaya Salad Set-up


This recipe is also available on our website as: Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam).

Green Papaya Salad Recipe (Som Tam)

Ingredients

  • 6-8 large cloves garlic, cut each into 3-4 pieces
  • 8-15 Thai chillies (prik kee noo), to desired hotness – each cut crosswise into 3-4 segments with seeds
  • 1 cup long beans, cut into 1 1/2-inch segments
  • 2 tsp. small dried shrimp
  • 1 small whole salted crab (bpoo kem), cut into 6 pieces – optional
  • 1 Tbs. palm sugar, or to taste
  • Juice of 2-3 limes, to desired sourness
  • 1 medium (about 2 lb. size) very firm, unripe green papaya, peeled and julienned into long strips to yield about 4 cups
  • 2-3 Tbs. fish sauce (nahm bplah), to taste
  • 6-8 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 Tbs. chopped unsalted roasted peanuts

If you have an average-size Laos-style baked clay mortar with wooden pestle, you may need to make the salad in two separate batches. With an extra-large carved palm wood mortar and pestle, the salad can be made in a single batch as follows.

Pound the garlic and Thai chillies together until they are pasty. Add the dried shrimp and pound to crack. Follow with the salted crab (if using) and long beans and pound well to bruise.

Add the palm sugar, juice of two of the limes, and fish sauce and stir well. Add the julienned green papaya. Toss well with the seasonings. Then, pounding with one hand and stirring with the other, bruise the green papaya until it picks up all the flavorings and seasonings. Taste and adjust as needed with more fish sauce, lime juice or palm sugar to the desired flavor combination. Ideally, for a Thai, the salad should be very hot and sour with only a light sweetness at the back of the tongue.

Add the tomato pieces at the end, stir and bruise lightly to blend in with the rest of the salad. Transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle with peanuts.

Serves 6 with a side plate of raw vegetables, as desired, in a multi-course family-style meal.

Green Papaya Salad

Green Papaya Salad


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, May 2010.

Reclining Buddha (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Reclining Buddha in Udon Thani

Reclining Buddha

Reclining buddha

There are many different kinds of Buddha statues in Thailand. One that you see frequently is the reclining Buddha. It represents the Buddha as he reclines and gives his final talk before he left his body. The images remind us that no matter what our position, standing, sitting, walking or lying down, we can remain mindful and present to the truth of the way things are.

Kasma took this picture on her recent trip to North East Thailand in Udon Thani province at Wat Phra Phuttabaht Bua Bok.


The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Krabi Batik (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Painting a Batik

Painting a Batik

Painting a batik

In Krabi we always visit the Varich Krabi Batik Center and usually come away with another colorful island shirt or wrap. I like that you can watch the artists at work, painting on the fabric, such as this woman painting a dragon when we visited last February (2010). It’s located at 136/5 Maharaj Road. (Varich Krabi Batik Directory Listing.)


The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Practicing Buddhism

Michael Babcock, Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Notes on a Practice

It’s interesting that one “practices” Buddhism. Almost as if one can never master it, that one is always “practicing.” It’s actually a comforting idea: it turns Buddhism into an ongoing process and not something to be attained. (On the other hand, the fact that doctors “practice” medicine is not very encouraging.)

Most of my exposure to Buddhism comes through the teachings of the Thai forest monk, Ajahn Chah and from monks and laypeople who lived and studied with Ajahn Chah for a time. Currently, I meditate (practice meditation) twice a day (morning and evening), each time for 20 to 40 minutes. As far as I can tell, the practice of meditation is what ultimately makes Buddhism work, that makes it possible to grasp and embody what the Buddha taught: that freedom comes from the ability to see/know everything exactly as it is.

Two themes, in particular,  have proven very useful.

Conditioned Reality

The first has to do with the conditioned nature of most of our daily reality. Ajahn Chah says:

Everything mental and physical, everything conceived and thought about without exception, is conditioned. [FH, 183]

Think about this. It means that the body is conditioned and that whatever we think or feel is conditioned. It means that whatever we think or feel would be different if our conditioning had been different.

We can easily see this. Take nearly any incident in life; here’s one. You are supposed to meet someone at a restaurant and they’re 20 minutes late. One (conditioned) response is to be furious: “I’m a busy person, I don’t have time to waste. How can he treat me like this!” A second person, different conditioning, might be delighted: “How great to have a little extra free time to just sit and relax.” A third person might not even notice or care. Basically, for nearly any event in our life we react with pleasure, anger or are neutral; this reaction is a result of past conditioning.

This is tremendously liberating. It means that we don’t have to believe our reactions, thoughts or feelings about any given matter. If we are angry about something and can catch it, we don’t need to react to it: we can simply notice it and realize: “this would be different if the conditioning were different.”  Then we can simply watch the reaction (thought or feeling) and see where it goes. We can watch it arise and pass away. We can imagine reacting differently.

If everything mental and physical is conditioned, it means that answers to ultimate questions can not be found in conditioned phenomena (mental or physical). By continually trying to find ultimate answers through thoughts or thinking, or believing that enlightenment can be attained by manipulating physical surroundings, we are like Nasrudin, searching in the wrong place for his keys.

Nasrudin is the character that appears in many teaching stories from the Middle East; you might say he is a wise fool. In this particular story a friend is walking home at night and he sees Nasrudin under the street lamp looking intently at the street. Here’s the exchange:

Friend: Nasrudin, what are you doing?
Nasrudin: I’m looking for my car keys?
Friend: Where did you lose them?
Nasrudin: I lost them in the house.
Friend: Why on earth are you looking for them here?
Nasrudin: Why there’s a nice light out here. It’s too dark in the house – I’d never find them there! Do you take me for a fool!

For a long time I didn’t quite get the meaning of this story. No one would be that stupid! Yet after listening and thinking about things Ajahn Chah says, I realized that mostly I am like Nasrudin: I’m trying to find answers in my thoughts and feelings, trying to figure it out. It’s a hopeless quest. There needs to be another way.

Ignorance and Understanding

The second helpful theme has to do with ignorance and understanding.

Ajahn Chah talks about the Buddha’s teaching that all delusion (actually, all of existence) arises through ignorance. Buddhism’s main thrust seems to be teaching us to experience reality exactly as it is,  to understand all things correctly. Ajahn Chah says this right understanding is key – if we understand correctly, everything else will follow:

We can see in our own practice that when we have right understanding and awareness, then right thought, right speech, right action, and right livelihood automatically follow. [SFP, 15]

Again, it’s easy to think about examples. Take my friend, who arrived 20 minutes late. I’m sitting there fuming and angry. Then when he comes, he tells me that he’s late because his child was hit by a baseball and he’d had to take him to the emergency room. This information, this understanding, completely changes what I feel: I go from anger to concern by just a simple understanding.

Apparently, the key understanding is that all conditioned things are impermanent. If we really grasp that, say, anger is a transitory feeling that has arisen and will soon pass away, then (if I understand correctly) we automatically won’t hold onto it or mistake it as something that “I” am feeling.

Finally, as you travel further along the path, you will come to see that nothing in the world has any essential value. There’s nothing to hold on to. Everything is like an old banana peel or a coconut husk—you have no use for it, no fascination with it. When you see that things in the world are like banana peels that have no great value for you, then you’re free to walk in the world without being bothered or hurt in any way. This is the path that brings you to freedom. [SFP, 153]

If I understand Ajahn Chah correctly, coming to this understanding is the heart of the practice: coming to really know and understand that conditioned objects or events (so anything arising in body or mind) are not worth paying attention to or identifying with:

Normally when sense objects come, we think about, dwell on, discourse over, and worry about them. Yet none of these objects is substantial: all are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and empty. Just cut them short and dissect them into these three common characteristics. [SFP, 37]

We meditate so that this understanding might arise. By picking a point of focus (typically the breath) and then paying attention to what happens in the mind, we can come to understand that everything that arises in body and mind is transitory, that whatever it is will arise and pass away.

Don’t go fixating on the way things appear to be. Recognize whatever appears to the mind as merely so—merely a moment of sensation and awareness, something impermanent that arises and passes away. There is nothing more than that. There is no self or other, no essence, nothing that should be grasped. [BD, 113]

Basically, all (ALL!) we are doing in our practice is developing the ability to see things exactly as they are, to know their true nature. We are practicing seeing everything that arises while we sit as transitory. It’s a practice that can often be unpleasant for neither meditation or practicing other aspects of Buddhism put an end to upset and suffering. It does give us the tools to deal with unpleasant conditions. We learn to simply observe, say, for example, that: “Anger is like this.” This phrase “. . . . is like this” can be used to see nearly any thought or feeling as an object and not myself. [With thanks to the talks of Ajahn Sumedho.]

Working With the Mind

When I first discovered Ajahn Chah I was delighted with how easy it all seemed to be. Meditate, have a great insight and everything will change. As I began to meditate and continued to read and study, it became clear that it is not quite this simple. In fact, Ajahn Chah warns us frequently that repeated practice is necessary, that each person must know for themselves, and that knowledge comes only through practice.

There’s a dual element of how we work with the mind. At one level we simply observe it without reacting to it:

We should let the mind think, let it do as it will, just watch it and not react to it. [SFP, 100]

On the other hand, we also need to train it

. . . the one who knows must teach it—explaining what is good and what is bad, pointing out the workings of cause and effect, showing that anything it holds on to will bring undesirable results–until the mind becomes reasonable, until it lets go. [SFP, 38]

Ajahn Chah says it’s like taking care of a water buffalo and a rice field. The buffalo wants to eat the rice plants so we let the buffalo wander but we keep watch over it. As long as the buffalo behaves itself, everything’s fine. If he goes too close to the rice plants we shout to scare him away; if he won’t listen, we hit him with a stick.

In training the mind, we watch. If it gets too involved with sense objects (the rice plants), we may need to be firm to get it to stop. Change comes about slowly because what is called for is learning to use the mind in a different way.  As Ajahn Chah says:

Why should it not take a long time? How long have you let your mind wander as it wished without doing anything to control it? How long have you allowed it to lead you around by the nose. [SFP, 145]

We develop the ability to concentrate (focus) the mind on a single point (samadhi). Then we can use the focused mind to examine all conditioned phenomena, to stay with it as we watch it arise and pass away and not get caught up in our thinking.

Meditation can be considered practice for the rest of our life: As Ajahn Chah said: “Do not put the meditation aside for a rest. . . . Contemplate all of it.” [SFP, 101, 102]

Other Useful Tools

Here are a few other elements that I have found useful to work with.

Ajahn Chah is adamant that one must develop morality. Living a moral life (and for a lay person, this is basically following the five precepts and refraining from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and taking intoxicating substances) establishes the basis for a calm mind. One accepts moral principles (precepts) and lives by them, observing the mind when it wants to transgress them and training it to behave.

I’ve also realized, largely through talks of monks in the Ajahn Chah tradition, that we also need to put energy into cultivating the qualities that we want to embody: it’s another aspect of training the mind. We have the ability to feel many qualities, such as compassion, forgiveness, clear-sightedness, joy or generosity (to name only a few). In our daily practice, we have the ability to call forth these qualities and express them in our lives.

One quality specifically worked with in Buddhism is metta (loving kindness). Metta can be a specific object of meditation (a point of one-sightedness), as when it is the theme of the loving kindness meditation. Another quality we can work with daily is generosity. We can train ourselves to call upon and express these qualities in our actions and can imagine them, call them forth, in our minds.

We can also practice simply letting go:

The heart of the path is so simple. No need for long explanations. Give up clinging to love and hate, just rest with things as they are. . . .  When you sit, let it be. When you walk, let it be. Grasp at nothing. Resist nothing. . . . it all comes back to this—just let it all be. [SFP, 5]

I find I need to train myself to let go. I usually want to grasp things. I’m finding that I can choose, instead, to let them go.

Another useful tool is training ourselves to view things from a different point of view. From one point of view, the whole Buddhist practice seems so very hard; Ajahn Chah also teaches that it doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated:

Just wake up! You create your own world. Do you want to practice or not? [SFP, 145]

In the book Being Dharma there’s a passage where Ajahn Chah likens the mind to a poisonous cobra snake. Is the snake dangerous? Only if you pick it up or disturb it. Is a rock heavy? Only if you pick it up.

It is as if all of our practice, all of our effort, is just to take us to a place where we can get the understanding of how very simple (indeed) it is to just let it all be. From one point of view, it is extremely difficult and hard: training a mind out of conditioning that is (at least!) one lifetime’s long. From another point of view, it really can be simple: just put it, whatever it is, down—just let it be. Then whatever else comes, let it be—again and again and again, right now:

But no matter how much it’s debated, the practice always comes down to this single point right here. When something arises, it arises right here. Whether a lot or a little, it originates right here. When it ceases, the cessation is right here. Where else? [FH, 185]

At this point I’m not at the moment-to-moment stage. In daily practice, these are all ideas and words that I find useful. Just put the rock down!

I currently rely heavily on the experience and words of Ajahn Chah. I don’t want to become the sort of person he talks about who “knows only the words of Buddhism and with the best intentions, go[es] around merely describing the characteristics of existence.” [SFP, 181] He often emphasizes needing to see for oneself, about not taking what he says and believing it without testing it out:

You should take what I’ve said and contemplate it. If anything is not right, please excuse me. You’ll know whether it’s right or wrong only if you practice and see for yourself.” [FH, 305]

Time for more practice.


Tools for Learning

Books of Ajahn Chah’s Teaching:

  • [BD] – Being Dharma: The Essence of the Buddha’s Teachings. Ajahn Chah, Translated by Paul Breiter. Shambala, Boston & London, 2001.
  • [FH] – Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah. Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA, 2002.
  • [SFP] – A Still Forest Pool: The Insight Meditation of Achaan Chah, compiled by Jack Kornfield & Paul Breiter, First edition 1985 by The Theosophical Publishing House in Wheaton, Illinois.

Talks by disciples of Ajahn Chah:

Previous Blog Entries:


Written by Michael Babcock, May 2010

Boat Noodles (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Boat Noodles at Damneon Saduak

Boat Noodle Vendor

Boat boodle vendor

Readers of this blog know that we do love our noodles. One of our favorites would have to be Boat Noodles, or Gkuay Tiow Reua.

Damneon Saduak floating market is a popular tourist destination and for good reason. Kasma does stop there on her “off-the-beaten-track adventures” but she always arrives at the market around 7:00 a.m., at least a couple hours before most of the tourists show up. After taking a boat trip around the surrounding canals she’ll invariably breakfast on Boat Noodles at the far end of the market. Although this gentleman appears to have retired, his daughter has taken over the operation.

Boat noodles are a particular type of noodle, usually with a very rich and tasty broth. Sometimes in the city you’ll see a storefront selling “boat noodles” that advertises the fact by having a boat out front to draw in customers.

Check out:


The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Adapting the Wok to your Stove

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Maintaining a high degree of heat is essential for stir-frying, so knowing how to adapt the wok to your stovetop is a key to success in its usage. For most home-cooks preparing meals for two to four people, most stovetops provide sufficient heat for successful wok cooking.

Wok Cooking

Student at Kasma's Kitchen

Each stovetop differs. On some gas stoves, the wok balances well enough on the grate without the need to use any special stand. Though a bit wobbly, a wok with good weight and depth has a center of gravity that makes it difficult to tip over unless one is really careless. For greater stability when stir-frying on such stovetops, simply hold on to a wok handle with one hand while tossing with the other.

On other gas stoves, the grate may be removed and a wok ring fitted down onto the indentation around the burner to bring the wok as closely as possible to the heat source. (Some of my students find that the grate on their stove when turned upside down balances their wok perfectly; but this works only on certain stoves.) From my years of teaching, I have found that many people use their wok rings inefficiently. The wok is better balanced and brought closer to the flames if the wider end of the ring is placed facing up. In any event, avoid using the wok ring on top of the grate as this lifts the wok too far above the heat source and will not give good results to your stir-fry.

Wok Ring

Wok ring for electric stove

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Wok rings come in different sizes and depths, so find one that fits the burner you plan to use for wok cooking and that is deep enough for your wok. Do not settle for the ring that comes with your wok set; if it does not fit your stove, search Asian markets for one that will. Wok rings also come either with wide open sides or closed sides with a series of small holes around the ring. The latter type is well-suited to the electric stove as it helps to concentrate heat and direct it upward (see right). Use a ring wide enough on its narrower end to completely surround the electric coil to assure that as much heat as possible is directed toward the wider end on which the wok sits. Heavy wire rings with open sides work best for powerful gas burners (hotter than 10,000 b.t.u.), allowing flames to leap up the sides of the wok and good air circulation to nurture the flames (see below left).

Wok Rings

One type of wok-ring

Choose a wok that is deep and well-rounded, made of heavy gauge carbon or spun steel for maintaining good heat and for easy seasoning (see next section). Flat-bottom woks are now commonly available and though they provide good balance on flat stovetops, I still prefer the age-old round bottoms. The wide, shovel-shaped wok spatula, which makes tossing such a breeze, is made to fit the rounded contours of the wok. I find it much easier to use with the round-bottom wok. Besides tossing, following a stir-fry, the spatula easily dishes out all the pieces of food, including small bits of garlic and drops of sauce, from the wok’s surface, enabling me to stir-fry two or more batches of food without having to clean in-between batches. This saves precious time in washing, drying and reheating the wok when cooking dishes with compatible flavors.

Wok on Stovetop

Wok on upside down burner

With a flat-bottom wok, the introduction of a slight angle where its bottom flattens out makes tossing with the round-edged wok spatula a bit more challenging and less fun, and often, food is less evenly cooked. Particles of food caught around this edge sometimes end up overcooking or burning, making cleanup more of a chore and increasing the likelihood of scrubbing off some of the precious, hard-earned patina. This slight angle also increases the likelihood of scratching the area above it while turning the pieces of food with the wok spatula. Some people solve this problem by replacing the wok spatula with a wooden spoon with which to stir-fry, but tossing with a spoon is much less efficient than with the wide wok spatula, defeating part of the purpose of cooking with a wok.

Although the flat-bottom wok is specially designed for better balance on the flat coils of the electric stove, it can be a challenge to stir-fry food evenly on it as its flat bottom, sitting directly on the coil, heats up much hotter than the rounded sides above it. Food can easily burn if it is not tossed quickly enough and tossing is made more difficult for reasons already mentioned.

Two woks on stove

Two 16-inch woks on one stove

So even on an electric stove, I advise my students to use a wok ring to lift the wok just a little bit above the coil. The burners of most electric stoves do put out plenty of heat; even if the wok is slightly lifted from the coils, enough heat will be conducted upward with the proper wok ring for a successful stir-fry. If a wok ring is to be used anyway, then it makes sense to just stay with the better-designed round-bottom wok.

Whether round-bottom or flat-bottom, use whatever wok you feel most comfortable with in your kitchen, and if you have been making perfect stir-fries on a flat skillet, then continue doing what you have been doing.

Read Kasma’s other articles on the Wok:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, May 2010.